After huge delays and cost overruns, the Airbus A400M is finally nearing first delivery to the French air force, a milestone that will also mark the beginning of a series of upgrades spanning five years.

Airbus Military “firmly committed” to handing over the first A400M before the Paris air show, toward the end of May or early June. “With the level of readiness technically and industrially, we can do it,” program chief Cedric Gautier says. Airbus Military expects to obtain European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification for the aircraft in the next few days, saying, “all documents have been released; certification is imminent.”

France will still receive its initial aircraft more than three years later than originally planned but with a series of capability upgrades slated for later. The first aircraft will only have initial operating clearance, essentially allowing its use as a freighter with no significant additional military functionality.

Airbus Military has also signed an initial in-service support contract spanning the first 18 months of operations for the French aircraft with Occar, the intergovernmental organization that negotiates A400M contracts on behalf of France, Germany, the U.K., Turkey, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg.

With the program entering a new phase, spare parts and maintenance support are becoming more urgent issues to resolve, but senior industry officials say it is already apparent that negotiations will be tough. The A400M was originally based on a commercial business model that placed all the program risk with the manufacturer. Given the program's high number of change requests and subsequent delays, that was later altered somewhat in protracted and highly controversial talks.

Particularly on the engine side, program returns are mostly achieved through profit margins in the aftermarket business. Senior industry officials say A400M customers consider maintenance and spare-parts prices too high, but the industry side is reluctant to give up too much margin.

The cost overruns mean the program will not make a profit with only its 174 firm orders, so there is a strong incentive to earn as much as possible from parts and repairs. Initial rounds of talks on this point were held early in the development phase, but few concrete agreements have been reached. Other countries are likely to make adaptations to the French approach, one executive says.

First delivery will be followed by a busy period of production ramp-up and capability upgrades scheduled to be completed in 2018.

MSN007, the first delivery aircraft, has been transferred to the flight-test center and is expected to make its initial flight next week. The delivery process, to be started in mid-April, is expected to last around six weeks.

If Airbus can meet the schedule, it will achieve first delivery of the much-delayed A400M and first flight of the A350 before the Paris air show.

Currently four other A400Ms are in various stages of completion on the final-assembly line here. MSN008, MSN010 and MSN011 will also be delivered to France, while MSN009 will be the first aircraft for Turkey.

Airbus Military expects the first parts for MSN012 to arrive within the next two weeks. In addition to handing over four aircraft this year, the company aims to deliver 10 in 2014, all of which will enter the final assembly process before year-end. Production of parts has been launched for aircraft up to MSN029.

Following the deliveries to France and Turkey, the U.K. is scheduled to receive its first aircraft in September 2014, Germany in November, Malaysia in January 2015 and Spain in January 2016.

The latest of many snags leading to the compounded delays was the detection of metallic chips in the oil system in one of MSN006's TP400 engines. Airbus suspended function and reliability testing after 160 of 300 planned flight hours. Greater than expected imbalance of the fan contributed to the mechanical issues, industry executives say, including damage in the gearbox. As a consequence, software had to be developed to more closely monitor vibration levels. The latest version of that software was delivered before the end of last year, but an engine retrofit on the first three aircraft will be needed in 2015 mainly to replace the gearboxes.

Function and reliability testing was also completed in December 2012. One of the test aircraft was taken to Northern Canada in February for the cold-weather campaign, exposing the aircraft to temperatures as low as -32C (-25F).

Before year-end, the A400M will undergo its first upgrade to standard operational capability 1 (SOC1), allowing for initial aerial delivery and self-protection. That is to be followed by SOC1.5 in late 2014 and SOC2 a year later. According to Gautier, upgrades up to SOC1.5 are likely to be performed here because they also involve hardware changes, but later upgrades are expected to be implemented at the various main operational bases because they are limited to software adaptation. The final step to SOC3 will clear the aircraft for low-level flight.